How Immigration And Urbanization Make Miami A Global City On The Edge

Apr 5, 2013

Design for Cities 2030
Credit University of Miami

The secret to why international cities like Miami continue to grow and thrive while others might wither and die is the subject of a day-long symposium today in Coral Gables.

Cities 2030: A Conference on Urban Futures, brings together leading academics and urban planning specialists in order to flesh out some of the major lessons of sustainability and failure, be it here, Beijing, Nairobi, Mumbai or Dubai. The University of Miami's School of Architecture and the Urban Studies program of the College of Arts and Sciences are co-hosting the event, which is open to the public (space is limited.)

Dr. Alejandro Portes
Credit University of Miami

Dr. Alejandro Portes, a UM law professor and chair of the sociology department at Princeton University, will deliver the keynote address. He is co-author of the book, “City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami.”

Portes says cities are at the intersection of two global trends: immigration and urbanization. For more than a thousand years, urban centers have been the favorite destination of migrants around the world. Portes argues that these two trends are inevitable and resistance to them is futile, suggesting that the most successful city planners over time have come up with strategies to tap these trends by balancing the competing interests of provincialism, pluralism and tolerance. Portes spoke with WLRN ahead of the conference.

WLRN: How do cities survive today?

Portes: In the United States, cities have had to look for their place in the sun in ways that were much different from the time when the country was an industrial power. As the United States de-industrialized, many cities that experienced vigorous growth in the past saw themselves being emptied out, with Detroit or Flynt, Michigan being the most extreme cases. Cities that do better in terms of viability and future growth in the new world economy are those that are global, or in other words, position themselves at the center of large financial and commercial flows. Those that are not are having a hard time keeping their population.

Fortunately for South Floridians, the evolution of a city, that was sometimes written off as a place that was going to fall into the ocean back in the 1980s, has been highly positive. And given its position at the center of these international flows I mentioned, one can anticipate the area will continue to grow in importance and diversify its economic base away from tourism, which is no longer its reason for being.

WLRN: Describe the paradox of immigration.

Portes: The power to control immigrant flows is not vested in cities, it’s vested in national governments. But most migrant flows in the modern world, including those coming to the United States, concentrate overwhelmingly in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Miami. Cities are the point of reception for immigrant groups even if cities have nothing to do with (national immigration policy.) That kind of paradox has led native born populations in many cities to complain to national governments about the arrival of so many foreigners. When examining this paradox, I found that, historically, anti-immigrant policies have backfired for people who have tried to maintain them and that the best way to deal with the reality of urban immigration is to adopt a tolerant attitude or policy toward newcomers and facilitate their integration into the system, which is what an experienced city like New York has done for the last century or so.

WLRN: So Miami is winning.

Portes: Miami is an interesting example of a city that went from having a policy of great resistance to migrant flows in the 1980s, and with good reason because the flows were enormous and appeared to overwhelm the city, to benefiting from an enormous influx of entrepreneurs and increase in the political power of certain groups like Cuban Americans and others.  The city has evolved into a much more pluralistic and cosmopolitan place than what it used to be when it was simply a winter resort.

Miami's position as a global city is regional. It does not control things at the global level like London or New York, but it has a great deal to do with commercial and financial flows from Europe to Latin America and between the United States and Latin America. One feature of all global cities is that, by their very dynamism, they tend to attract a large flow of immigrants. So you can speak of a transnationalism from above that is led by major banks and large corporations and a transnationalism from below that is led by ordinary people looking for a place in the sun and searching for opportunities. Both phenomena tend to converge in these new urban areas of the world of which Miami is one.